The Story of Seventeen Tasmanians: The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and Repatriation from the Natural History Museum
(2009) 11 Newcastle Law Review 143-165
Posted: 18 Feb 2020
Date Written: June 13, 2009
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) has been involved in a legal battle with the Natural History Museum in London over possession of the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines which the Museum has had in its possession since the 19th Century. While the Museum has recently agreed to repatriate the remains, it still seeks to DNA test some samples taken from the remains. For present day Tasmanian Aborigines, this is viewed as representing a degrading violation of Aboriginal cultural and spiritual beliefs. The TAC is therefore maintaining its stance to try and prevent the tests taking place. This has created opposition from even within the Aboriginal community, with some claiming that the money spent on this battle could be better spent on more pressing community needs. The case has raised moral, ethical and legal issues including what property rights may exist in the remains; the legal right to a burial; legal requirements in relation to the carrying out of tests on human tissue and repatriation; and even in this case, the question of the administration of estates. Some would argue that there is a clear moral and ethical argument that the study of a unique people (like the Tasmanian Aborigines) enhances our understanding of humanity, and therefore must override the desires of a relatively few. This is balanced by the counter-argument that such testing not only infringes cultural beliefs, but also smells of nineteenth century imperialism that saw Indigenous peoples treated as little more than curiosities. This paper explores some of these issues.
Keywords: Indigenous peoples, repatriation of remains, burial, law, property, property in human remains
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